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Wrong Crowd?

May 26, 2008
"Hey, Mom!" Your fourteen-year old daughter greets you as she walks to the car. Your eyes bulge at the blue eye shadow and black liner smudged around her eyes.

Your daughter turns and waves to a made-up girl in a tight shirt and ripped jeans standing on the sidewalk. The girl waves back and saunters away, hips swinging from side to side.

"Who's your friend?" you manage to ask.

"Oh, no one," she replies.

Sooner or later, our daughter will buddy up with a peer whose values and upbringing do not match our own. We must fight our instincts to lock her in her room until the danger passes.

"Most experts agree that a friendship with a less-than-stellar kid is unlikely to have any lingering effect on your child, if you handle the situation with care," says Sue Woodman in her Parenting article, "What To Do When You Don't Like Your Child's Friends."

Research shows that well-adjusted children are rarely hurt by friendships with their wayward peers. It appears that well-grounded values and kindness rub off quicker than dysfunction and meanness.

Many children choose friends who complement them. A shy girl befriends the class clown. A fearful child befriends the daredevil. They do so because they get something out of the relationship. As needs change, often, so do friendships.

Nonetheless, as parents, we worry. We worry that another's values will rub off on our children. We worry that our daughter will make poor decisions in the face of temptation. We worry we'll lose the daughter we know and love.

If we forbid the friendship, we set up a dilemma for our child. Desire to follow the rules conflicts with the desire to explore "otherness." Nearly always, the child will choose her own needs and will continue seeing the forbidden friend at school or social events. For some, the adolescent's desire for autonomy makes the forbidden friendship all the more attractive.

According to Larry Dumont, MD, an adolescent psychiatrist at KidsPeace National Hospital for Kids in Crisis, most kids try on many different identities before finding one that fits.

"It's a rite of passage, a sign of their becoming their own person," says Dumont. "Finding their identity and discovering their place in the world - these are the major challenges of the teenage years."

If your daughter befriends a peer whose behavior worries you, Dumont suggests asking three questions:

* What purpose does this friendship or group serve in your daughter's life?
* How does this friendship enhance her self-image?
* If you take your daughter out of the group, what substitute activity or person can meet her needs?

"Kids have always been involved in groups. This is to be expected and can be a very beneficial activity for teenagers. Don't jump to conclusions about new friends or strange clothes. These may be just the proverbial 'phase' they're going through."

The one exception is if your child takes up with a gang.

"Groups often take on characteristics of their own. People who would never dream of certain behavior on their own or with one or two others seem to become immune to the cries of inner conscience when they are part of a large group," says Eda LeShan in When Your Child Drives You Crazy.

"Restrictions and punishments are surely no answer, however. Such methods tend to push a child into the welcome embrace of those who won't sit in judgement upon him. The most important antidote is free and honest discussion of the temptations and the dangers," says LeShan.

But how do we talk so our daughter will listen? Show faith in her judgement. State our concerns rather than our values say the experts.

Ellen Rosenberg, in her book, Get A Clue!, suggests the following:

Say, "I know she means a lot to you, but:

* here's what concerns me..."
* here's how I see you change when you're with her..."
* here's how I see you treat your sister when she's around..."
* here's what scares me..."

Say, "While I appreciate that continuing this friendship is your decision:

* I hope you'll be strong about what you let yourself do."
* I hope you'll at least think about this."
* I'm worried about her influence."

Even though we don't like it, there comes a time when we can't control every situation our daughter encounters. In those situations, we hope she will hear our voice, feel our love, and make the mature choice. If we've talked openly through the years, chances are she'll have the insight and strength to make the right decision.
About the Author
Dede Perkins writes on a number of subjects for a number industries. She also runs a copywriting business, http://www.afewgoodwords.com and helps her clients increase sales by clarifying and communicating their marketing messages.
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